Green IO
#10 - Sören Enholm - How to navigate toward more sustainable digital equipment?
November 1, 2022
In this episode, we went to Stockhölm to meet Sören Enholm, TCO Certified CEO 🏷️. For 30 years, TCO has been assessing IT products reaching a whopping 10'000 references today 🤯. We discussed the environmental footprint of digital devices, natural and urban mining, how to secure a qualitative certification process, the current momentum in Digital Sustainability and much more.
In this episode, we went to Stockhölm to meet Sören Enholm, TCO Certified CEO 🏷️. For 30 years, TCO has been assessing IT products reaching a whopping 10'000 references today 🤯. We discussed the environmental footprint of digital devices, natural and urban mining, how to secure a qualitative certification process, the current momentum in Digital Sustainability and much more. 

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Gael: Hello everyone. In this Green I/O episode, we go to Stockholm. I must admit that during summer it's more enjoyable. In Stockholm, I had the pleasure to meet Sören Enholm the CEO of TCO Certified a world leading sustainability certification for IT products. Why TCO Certified? So far in the show, we had the pleasure to talk about greener Web Dev, greener hosting, greener product management and also how to raise awareness regarding digital sustainability. But I really want to focus more on hardware. As I relentlessly say, when I facilitate Digital Collage workshop, it's the hardware, stupid. And don't get me wrong, I do not insult participants joining a Digital Collage workshop.

I just mocked James Careville's famous sentence: "It's the economy, stupid". No harm feelling. So "it's the hardware, stupid" because the equipments we use in digital technology have massive environmental impacts. From embedded carbon, which is often far bigger than the greenhouse gas emitted during the usage phase, toward pollution and resources exhaustion.

Hardware should always stay on top of our mind as responsible technologists, and this is why I'm so happy to have Sören with us today. So let's go back to our guest and introduce him properly. After graduating in computer science and linguistics at Upsala University, Sören has embraced a very successful career in business development with various companies like Sun Microsystem, Netscape, Apple. All the way up to executive position when he became VP Europe at Symsoft. But 13 years ago, he made a significant change in his career and joined TCO development as its CEO. Under his tenure, TCO Certified successfully reached the milestone of 10,000 products being certified, and it also managed to join the film industry by participating in the Matrix movie.

Welcome, Sören. Thanks a lot for joining Green I/O today. 

Sören: Thank you very much Gaël. 

Gael: So what did I miss in your bio? 

Sören: Well, I think it was, a good, description. I think for of, of my, career. Of course there is, a lot more to why I ended up in, in, in this position. And, I really like to be out in the, in the nature kayaking, mountain biking, or just walking around. and environmental issues has always been on top of my mind.

But, I think historically it, it's been too much connected to activism for me. I'm more of an engineering person and, and I guess that's why I ended up in the IT industry after the university. When the opportunity turned up, at, TCO Development, which is the organization behind, TCO Certified that was really a perfect match for me. It's about, IT products. I work in IT industry, my whole career. And it's also about, sustainability, environmental and social sustainability, which is a big, as I said, interest.

Gael: Yeah. Got it. So you recently launched the ninth generation of certification. Could you tell us a bit more about it? What does it cover? How do you build a framework to support all of this? 

Sören: Yes, it's it's been a really long, journey with TCO Certified. The first generation was launched 30 years ago in 1992. At that time we focused on the use phase of the products, to make the products better for the users. Well, better I guess also from an environmental perspective with, with better energy efficiency.

But the main thing was ergonomics for the users and, and user safety. Most of the challenges connected to the use phase of the products have been solved during the years, but, now we see more and more challenges in the whole manufacturing phase with the big global complex supply chains of the products and also,when the products can't be used any longer and, and, should be taken back and recycled which doesn't really happen. So, so now the certification is really about both environmental and social, sustainability in the whole life cycle from the mines, all the way to, responsible take back and recycling. And what we have been focusing a lot on for generation nine is to work on criteria that that puts the IT products in a more circular model, life cycle model.

Gael: Could you give us example, like one or two examples of criteria that enabled us to achieve a more circular economy, as you say. 

Sören: Yeah, yeah. Since lots of the footprint, environmental and social footprint is in the manufacturing phase and also at the end of life. Really the, the, the main focus is to keep the products in the use phase as long as possible. We have, created criteria making it easier to maintain the product, to change batteries or other consumables, which, have usually a shorter life cycle than the rest of the product.

It should be easier to, to take the product, apart to repair it or to upgrade it also, to enable a second life. And, a third life perhaps of a product. So when the first user can't use it any longer of summaries and maybe another can still use it, but then it has to be prepared for refurbishment as well.

Sören: So this kind of criteria we have focused a lot on for generation nine, and we think that is really one of the key areas today.

Gael: If I understand it well, for instance, a laptop cannot be certified by TCO if you cannot easily replace the battery. Or do you have some kind of ranking system from something as bad as a sealed battery and something as good as a super easy, with a standard screw way of replacing a battery? 

Sören: Yeah. Yeah. Preferably, the battery should be replaceable without tools at all. 

Gael: Fair point 

Sören: Yeah, exactly. But the requirement we have is that it has to be replaceable with standard tools, you know, standardized tools you can buy in any hardware store.

Gael: not something like the one Apple, uses at the moment and offers, for instance, for their smartphones, where you've got specific screwdrivers that you could not find in the regular shop. 

Sören: No exactly. We, that, that's, we don't allow that. We think that is really bad for repairability and, and for instance, changing the battery.

Gael: Well, that's a very interesting line of thought because I would love to hear what you think about the Repairability index that has been pushed both in France and across Europe. Is it aligned with what you're doing at TCO? Do you see any pitfalls at the moment? 

Sören: No, it's definitely in line with what we do, regarding repairability. And the main challenge , with the, the Repairability index in France is that it's a self declaration. The manufacturers or brands, they create the, index for each product by themselves. And we see that these kind of of systems which are self declared, does not become reliable because all manufacturers and brands are, are not honestin their self declaration.

And that's of course also what, TCO Certified is all about. We require independent verification of all criteria in the certification and actually you can use TCO Certified to get independent verification. For the French Repairability index, we have adapted the criteria in TCO Certified, according to the, French repairability index.

Gael: That's very interesting, and that's something that you advertise a lot, that you've got more than 20 thousands hours of, work and study, independent study, et cetera. Could you tell us a bit more like what does it concretely means "independent verification". 

Sören: So, so, really what it means is that an independent verification organization has to, verify every product model that is certified according to the criteria. So the products, the manufacturers or the brands they have to send the product to, an independent, organization to be tested.

and of course, not all criteria can be tested. Some, you verify by documentation, but all verification has to be done by independent,persons that are not part of the manufacturer or, or, or the brand.

Gael: And how do you choose them? Because I, I believe they're not, they're not employees from TCO Certified. They're subcontractors. Am I right? 

Sören: Yeah, we, we have a number of approved verifiers that we work with. We have been working with, with, these organizations since the start 30 years ago, so, so we know them very well, but it's typically multinational verification organizations like, Intertech and, T Reinland and Nemco, and they have, labs and, and, verifiers in offices all around the world.

And when we started 30 years ago, all the verification was actually done, in Europe, but now when most of the product development, has moved to Asia, also the verification organizations in Asia are used, and not the one in Europe any longer. But, it's the same companies that also have offices around Asia.

Sören: And for, for the credibility of the system, these organizations are, accredited with the governmental bodies that verify that they work according to certain standards, but also we have a quality program for them. So, what we do is that we, take a number of IT product ourselves and go around to every lab and we make them, test the product according to our criteria and verify it regarding, documentation.

And then we go round to all of them, and we check that they get the same results because if you can get a different result, if you go to another laboratory, then you have a quality problem in the system.

Gael: So you cross check the results of the different labs involved. 

Sören: Yeah, exactly. We do a "round robin", as we call it. So this is a regular thing that we do, every year we have, we have these rounds where we verify that they test and verify products, as they should. And sometimes of course, we also see them, that, that we can be more clear in our guide testing and verification guide.

So sometimes this also result in us, updating or making clarifications to, to, to our, verification guide.

Gael: Fair enough. And Sören, you mentioned two things that are super keen to my heart when you listed the environmental impacts that you cover in the ninth generation which are both the mining: go all the way up to the supply chain and the management of e-waste. And I'd like us to focus a bit on these two aspects. Starting with the mining. How much do you manage to go upward? Do you work with NGO like, you know, in French, you've got Systex,electronicswatch, worldwide, or you've got also Germanwatch in Germany. How do you assess that the materials, and especially the metals involved in the, elaboration of, the, the devices are the least harmful for the environment. 

Sören: Yes. That, that's a really good question Gaël. Regarding material choices, that, that is one question of course, per se. And, and we have, a number of criteria connected to substances and especially hazardous substances. Which one are banned you can't use it all and which one are preferred?

So we try to steer the industry. We don't only ban, we also try to steer them to the better alternatives. so, so, so, so that is one part of it. When we look at the mines, there are more and more systems created to be able to track where, if you look at the global supply chains, where are the different materials sourced from?

And then there are also programs to work with the making, the mines, the production sites. Better both from an environmental and and social perspective. So we require the brand owners to work according to these systems. So we don't, we don't do this tracking ourselves. That would be too complex for us as a small organization. So we always try to build on initiatives that are out there.

But of course, we, we always verify the initiatives that they are serious, and that they actually do what they, what they are supposed to and what they say they do.

Gael: Could you provide us an example of these initiatives? 

yes, there are, for instance, it's called "Responsible Mining, Initiative" that is quite focused on the metals especially used in IT products. There are a number of them. I think we have been looking at around 20 of these initiatives, and there are a few of them that we have chosen as, as more serious than the others, and that's what would require then the brands to work with.

Gael: Do you see huge differences between manufacturers regarding how they source these precious materials? 

Sören: Yeah, I, I would say in general we are getting more and more legislation in place. US was first with, with Dodd-Frank Act. that's, what is it? It's almost 10 years now, I think. and,and Europe followed now. So the IT companies that are, Either have their headquarters in, in, US, -we don't truly have any it hardware companies in Europe any longer- but, it's US or,some different Asian countries, and the ones that have, their headquarters or big operations in US, they, they have to, comply to the American laws especially. And, and of course also the European laws. All companies that sell products in Europe have to comply to the European laws.

So that's a big push for the, the brand owners to, engage in this. But, the brands that are local to Asia, I would say are not that engaged, because they don't have to. Also, we are not that engaged with them.

Gael: Okay, so the push comes from regulatory pressure rather than self consciousness that some mining operations are actually super harmful for the Planet. 

Sören: Yeah, I, I, I would say that, and, and it's also important to remember that the mines are really, really far from the brands and it is a hard task for the brands even to track the supply chain all the way back to the different mines. So, so, it's important that there are these initiatives and systems being built up, which also the brands can rely on.

We can point the brands to these initiatives and the brands can rely on them. I mean with these complex global supply chains, we really have to find systematic ways of working with the, the issues connected to raw materials.

Gael: In a previous discussion, you mentioned urban mining as a way to reduce the pressure on the environment. Sourcing materials not from natural resources, but from electronic waste. Is it something that you track or that you incorporate in the TCO Certified framework? 

Sören: Yeah, we, we require all the brand owners, to have a take back system,for products. and we also try to find different ways to promote urban mining, meaning taking the valuable materials from the electronic waste rather than taking it from the ground. but, this whole area is, is quite tricky. in some countries it's not even possible or legal for the brand to do this because there are governmental monopolies to manage waste. So, so there are lots of old systems and, and regulations that we have to work with together in the society to be able to make urban mining happen big way.

I mean, it already happens in a small way, but, but we need it to happen in a big way. And it's kind of ironic that the concentration of these, earth metals, rare earth metals and even gold and copper is a lot, lot bigger in the electronic waste compared to in the ground. But still, we keep on taking it from the ground because we have built up, we have built these huge systems to, to do this in an efficient way when we take it up from the ground, but we haven't done that for urban mining. so we try to find different ways to make this happen, but it is difficult to find ways to do this. and, not only for us, but also for the brands. Since, the complexity is so big and, and the rules and regulations differ from country to country and , yeah, there are lots of hurdles that we need to work on together.

Gael: Yeah, I got it. now that we reviewed a bit, the TCO certification, I'd like to ask a very hands on question. As a professional purchaser of IT products, imagine I'm a CFO, CIO, a Secretary General, or anyone in IT procurement. How can TCO Certified help me reduce my environmental footprint? 

Sören: Yeah, I mean, first it's important to understand that the main thing, as a purchaser, is not to include the criteria. It's, it's really to be able to do the verification that the products, fulfill the criteria. And most purchasers, I would say almost all, they don't have the resources or the competence to be able to do this themselves.

So, so just as we use other players, other systems, when we build our, criteria, most purchasers have to do the same thing, when they have include this criteria in, in, in their purchasing. So it's a convenient way for purchasers to include a requirement on TCO Certified. Then we will do the job of creating, the optimal, criteria, for this product that they are purchasing. And we also make sure that there, there is independent, verification, for this product that is, that is purchased. and some of the criteria are really connected directly to the use of the product. we still have criteria on energy efficiency of the product.

That is still important, even though maybe the main part, of energy use is in manufacturing phase. and we including, criteria, as I said, for, for user ergonomics, user safety, and, it's an interesting aspect there. For instance, now there is a big, big, focus on energy efficiency of the product.

But, uh, if you take a notebook or a computer monitor, the main reason , it uses lots of energy, it's It's bright. So especially a notebook if you're going to use it outside or you know in a café and you have lots of lights and so on. You want it to be bright, but when it's bright, it also consumes more energy and,and, then it can be tempting for the brands and manufacturers to have lower brightness of the display to reduce the, the energy use.

But, Then the product maybe will not be that usable and probably the life length of the product will be shorter. So it's really important to find the balances here to, to make the product, as usable as possible to make them have as long product life as possible. But based on that to be, as energy efficient as, as possible.

And, I would say a main component as a purchaser as well is that when many purchasers put their pressure behind the same set of criteria, then the industry listens. As a single purchaser, it's quite difficult to, push for, for some of the aspects. You, you may want to, but together with lots of others it is possible.

So that's also a big role of, of TCO Certified in this sense.

Gael: Yeah. to gather strengths.

And, a very related question is: does TCO Certified, allow to incorporate the embedded carbon of the device you acquire? Is it something compulsory now? And if I buy something which is certified by TCO, will I get the embedded carbon to help, you know, my greenhouse gas accounting, obviously.

Sören: Yeah, that's a great question, Gaël and this is what lots of purchasers or organizations are, are looking for today. The challenge with this is that the main, factor of your result is what method you use to calculate your embedded carbon footprint. So if you use one tool, and one dataset, you will get one result. And, if you use another tool, and another dataset, you will get another result for the same product. 

Gael: And will you push for one tool rather than another? 

Sören: Well, to be honest, we don't think there is any tool or dataset that is good enough yet for, for this. The main problem usually is the dataset. That the dataset is usually not, based on up to date data. It's a long lag of data updates. So, so usually the data is several years old. This is something definitely that we are looking at. We really try to, to, find a good criterion for this in generation nine. But, we didn't, unfortunately. so actually we have a criterion to collect the data, for the products that we certify and what methods, are used.

But, we are still trying to figure out how to do this in the best possible way. However, it's still relevant to look at embedded carbon footprint from a product type perspective. So if you have thousands of employees with thousands of workplaces, and maybe now also after the pandemic, you, you have home offices, of course, it's, it's really important to look at, okay, how many, what, what it equipment should we provide? Is it enough with one notebook? And maybe one phone. Or do we have to provide also, monitors both, at the office and at the home office? should we have a notebook or should we have both a desktop and a notebook?

This kind of questions you should really ask yourself as a purchaser, a big purchaser. And of course, also, how long do you use the product and could you reuse it? maybe internally. Some of the users have higher,requirements for performance and so on than others. and if you can't use it, yourself any longer, can you leave it away for refurbishment? And it can be used somewhere else, maybe in a school or something like that. Maybe you can also purchase refurbished IT equipment for some of your, users. So these kind of questions, I would say are more, much more important than what is the embedded carbon footprint for a specific product.

Gael: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. And Sören, I forget to ask you a very important question actually, because a lot of our audience are CTO or CPO or people working more with data center products or network infrastructure products than only laptop or desktop. And do you see a significant difference in the way these products are elaborated, manufactured?

Yeah. Do you see a difference, at TCO Certified regarding the quality and the sustainability of these products, or not that much? 

Sören: Well, it's a big difference between, between the high volume products, like PCs, notebooks, phones, and so on. And the low volume products like servers and, and, and, and storage and routers and so on. Especially if we speak about the big routers you use and, and switches that you use in the data centers.

so, so high volume products have a certain set of sustainability challenges, but this low volume product has another set of challenges. So it's not that they don't have any challenges, but they are a little different, I would say. And yeah, we have been focusing, on the office IT products for -what is it?- The first 28 years or something like that, 27 years. So it's only the last couple of years that we have started to look into the data center products as well. And what we see there is that still the main focus is on energy efficiency because for the data center products, actually the energy consumption in the use phase is usually higher than the embedded, energy consumption or embedded carbon footprint.

Sören: So, so that's why the focus is usually, but there are still problems also connected to the data center products, other problems, other challenges, and, and that's what we are also addressing with TCO Certified for these product categories.

Gael: Definitely, Well, I could go, I could go on with my question asking you to go in depth into this sustainably management system. However, being mindful of time, I would like to ask you. A more general question because when we discussed your appearance in the show, you mentioned that the awareness is still quite low about all the environmental and social problems connected to IT products I'm quoting you.

Could you elaborate a bit on it? And more specifically, what are the trends that you witnessed, these past years, and what do you foresee for the future? 

Sören: Yeah, I, I mean, lots of things have happened in the last five years I would say in general, sustainability has become a, a risk aspect for organizations, and this means that it becomes important for owners for, boards of directors, for management, and they are used to managing risks in their operations.

So now when sustainability also has become a risk or categorized as a risk, It's not only driven by individuals that are concerned or have a special interest. It's driven in the regular management system in the organizations, which is extremely important. so, that's a big trend, important trend that is influencing the whole sustainability sector a lot right now. I would say that the sustainability challenge is connected to, for instance, the clothing industry, and yeah, maybe also the furniture and industry, has been quite well known for, for a long time. We have seen reports from, India, Bangladesh, and so on. Horrific reports about, working conditions and accidents and so on.

But, I think historically, many people see when they see the IT products, maybe they think about, you know, people in in white, coats, in the factories, doing very high tech work and, and have not maybe understood the problems connected to IT or ICT products. A factory, for IT products looks the same as a factory for almost anything today. Of course some components in the, in the IT products are really high tech and requires,specific facilities. But, putting the products together is just like any factory. And we have the same kind of problem in the factories for IT products as in other factories for more simple, products and in some parts maybe even more problematic because of, in the IT products you use lots of hazardous, substances and so on. 

I would say that the awareness is rising and it has risen a lot the last couple of years. and, media has helped a lot. I would say that we have seen both news from factories and news from, dump sites of electronic waste and so on around the world, and, and documentaries. and of course, since sustainability is becoming in general a more important topic based on the trends, you look into everything. You look into all product categories and then you start to learn and you start to see.

Gael: Thanks a lot for all these insights, and I've got one last question which I asked to all of my guests, and of course you will be no exception to it. What will be your recommendations to learn more about sustainability and in your case, in the ICT industry, I would say? 

Sören: Yes, that's, that's a really good question. We have lots of information on our website:

Gael: And I will obviously put the link on the show notes. 

Sören: Yeah, that's great Gaël. And, and, we are actually working on a, Yeah, we have not really decided what to call it, but, but some kind of, Academy TCO Certified Academy to collect information about where can you find more information, more insights on different topics. In the near future, it will also be possible to find good links there.

I hope that your blog Gaël will also be an important channel for everybody to learn more, and that you will also point out the good places, the good sources , to look for more information.

Gael: Okay, thanks a lot and well noticed that TCO Certify will soon launch, an academy. I will definitely communicate on it when it will happen. Thanks a lot Sören for, attending the show. It was very interesting to have you because we don't usually go that deep into how we build stuff and the challenges to assess how green and how ethical are the equipment. Thanks a lot for bringing some lights. 

Sören: Thank you very much Gaël and great speaking to you and I really appreciate that you communicate on this really important topic.

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